When the military came under pressure in the period after 2008 with the restitution of what we call ‘democracy’ in this country — essentially civilian rule — the notion of strategic depth was the most popular means of lashing out at the military. Day in and day out, there wasn’t a discourse that recalled the absurdity of the notion that had been allegedly long propounded by the military and harboured by it as its real, secret aim in finding territorial and, when the critics were generous, political extension of Pakistan’s influence to provide it with the necessary safety against perceived threats. This is at least how most discussants from the intelligentsia, the media and the civil society, understood or enunciated the concept.
The pressure on the military came via different means. It was the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill first that brought the military to pitch against what was truly an American design to control promotions in the senior ranks, or the fact that the military would need to give an undertaking that it would not derail the democratic process if the funding was indeed to continue. It adduced the right riposte from the military and the two conditions had to be excised. It then led to the damning discovery of Osama bin Laden (OBL) and the insidious episode of Memogate, as was called a leak of the secret communication between the government (or its agent) with the US aimed to seek US support to corner a beleaguered military in the aftermath of the OBL and Salala incidents. Inevitably, over time, fences were pitched, opposing positions reinforced and a coexistence of the ‘other’ barely tolerated. That saw the completion of the first five years of restituted ‘democracy’.
Most of it had to do with ‘democratic reflux’ that found expression in a jaded PPP’s attitude towards the military. Unsure if it would be allowed to complete its tenure, or will it be business as usual when the military or its proxies pushed a replacement around two to three years down the line, it became a moment of achievement when the PPP did complete its five years. It is duly celebrated as such by the party. Now, though, another reality has begun to sink in which addresses the purpose of a government and not its structure alone. This is a welcome, reassuring and a healthy place to be on the road to assured civilian-led political dispensations. I digress, though.
The notion of ‘strategic depth’ indeed has its roots in the military. General Mirza Aslam Beg first expounded the notion publicly though it must be said that the concept gained enthused support during the Zia years with expeditions into Afghanistan at the behest of the CIA. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the first Gulf war brewed, General Beg, by now the army chief, pitched a renewed relevance for the notion. While he sent his forces to Saudi Arabia as part of the coalition against Saddam, he at the same time voiced his public support to Iraq and Saddam against the coalition.
That may though have been a reflection of his personal preference, but he soon offered another manifestation of the notion of ‘strategic depth’ by proposing a much closer relationship with Iran. This is also the first and the only moment when the notion was first intended to seek a physical refuge in territorial terms to relocate some critical defence equipment away from India’s expected reach. Luckily, this only remained a suggestion more in the realm of loud thinking, howsoever deficient in strategic reason. After all, in a war, a nation is meant to fight with what it has, not to hide away what it must be fighting with. (Having said that, it will be pertinent to mention that Saddam did disperse his air assets to Iran when the first Gulf war broke out, away from the American onslaught, only to rue the decision when Iran refused to return the aircraft when the war ended. In the second Gulf war that brought Saddam down in 2003, the American forces found many Iraqi aircraft hidden in sand to save them from destruction; ironic, for they were meant to defend against what had become Iraq’s tragic destiny.)
There has been a pervasive concern in the military strategist’s mind regarding the ‘lack of depth’ in Pakistan’s geography. But to situate that as an underlying logic for better relations with Iran, or Afghanistan, where the notion stuck for worse especially with the territorial connotations, is misplaced. Instead, what is of greater relevance is another veritable concern of being squeezed from its two narrow flanks by a simultaneous armed or political pincer aimed at dislocating Pakistan’s strategic focus. That places both Afghanistan and Iran as the two key nodes that must always deny an adversary an opportunity to use this space and threaten Pakistan’s vulnerability. Call it the two-front situation, or a nut-cracker, or simply having an unfriendly neighbour, which along with India, projects the dreaded two-front scenario.
Fast-forward to now. What Saudi Arabia seeks in Yemen is the reassurance of a ‘space’ that will not be inimical to its territorial, ideological and political interests. Call it ‘defensive strategic depth’, but what it aimed to seek by removing Bashar alAssad was expansive; more political and ideological as it competed against Iran for influence and domination. When the US envisions and implements its strategy of fighting its enemies away from its borders, the farther the better, and deploys across the globe to ensure that war never comes home, it too is working in what can be termed its strategic depth.
So strategic depth is good; it isn’t only a military’s fascination and thus a tool of strategic bashing, it is a politico-strategic imperative. Something that the diplomats and leaders are paid to develop in the service of their nation. The manner of gaining it though has been where Pakistan is frequently faulted, especially in Afghanistan. But today is another time, and Afghanistan coasts along fairly. Instead, the choice to prefer Saudi Arabia over Iran — which invariably is how Pakistan’s choice in supporting Yemen will end up being classified as — poses another kind of dilemma. Here is a variation of the strategic depth that Pakistan will be giving up were it to make a wrong politico-strategic choice. Going by the relevance of the notion of strategic depth and its essence in Pakistan’s long-term health — incidentally far more so in economic terms — it will help to have a friendly Iran. And that simply may mean a more balanced disposition despite how Pakistan’s ruling elite may prefer to express their preference for Saudi Arabia.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2015.